How mental health should be taught in Canadian schools

Measuring success for Stacey De Souza’s students isn’t as conventional as getting an A on a test, making the basketball team or graduating from high school.

Major wins for her students include leaving the house to take public transit to school or finishing a semester — or even a week or two — of classes.

“Many of the clients we see have a concurrent disorder. Depression and anxiety are the top tier for a lot of the clients coming in. They’re identifying depressive symptoms, they’re feeling sad or lonely. It’s challenging to get to high school because of these symptoms,” De Souza told Global News. She’s a social worker at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto.

CAMH runs two academic day programs partnered with the Toronto District School Board, including the REACH program De Souza helps with. There, about 16 students complete high school courses while getting daily help with their mental illnesses. Three out of the four periods focus on traditional studies that garner credits, such as math and English.

A fourth period focuses solely on mental health through individual cognitive therapy or group work. Psychiatrists, social workers and counsellors are onsite throughout the day, too. It’s a novel, unconventional way to address mental illness in the classroom.

But promoting positive mental well-being and teaching mental health literacy to Canadian youth aren’t easy feats, experts say.

Canadian educators pioneering mental health education

Mental health literacy is the new frontier educators are trying to make inroads on.

“This is a social contract that’s changed. Schools taught reading, writing and arithmetic and parents would handle the children. Now the onus is on schools but the resources and structures of schools haven’t changed and they’re struggling.”

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“Our expectation of the education system is different than what it was 50 years ago,” said Dr. Stanley Kutcher, a child psychiatrist and chair of adolescent mental health at Dalhousie University.


Right now, teaching this once-controversial material is patchy and inconsistent across Canada.

It isn’t mandatory for school curriculums to touch on mental health, materials and tool kits aren’t streamlined and teachers voluntarily sign up for programs designed to help students.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t a strong commitment to using evidence in the schools, so schools often use materials where we don’t know if it works or not. There’s confusion about what schools should be doing about mental health,” Kutcher said.

But the experts wholeheartedly agree: schools are the cornerstone for mental health literacy.

“It’s easy for us as teachers to say there are psychiatrists and psychologists who are specialists and I’m not qualified to think of these mental health concerns,” said Dr. Patricia Peterson. She’s a University of New Brunswick professor specializing in educational psychology.

“I want teachers to know we can all understand and appreciate kids who have emerging mental health concerns. It doesn’t take a PhD for anyone to know a child is struggling.”

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Mental health literacy for every developmental stage

Kutcher and his team spent seven years poring over academic literature to create their mental health literacy resources that are now “web-based and classroom-ready.”

The tools he built are used across Canada, and into the U.S., Europe, China and Africa, where he’s provided consultations to school boards.

Teachers have to start young, Kutcher said. The materials need to be developmentally appropriate, so complexity advances as kids move through the school system.

In primary grades, for example, kids are taught good behaviour. They learn to identify feelings and emotions, such as happy, sad, or mad. This sounds rudimentary, but Kutcher said it’s integral to building a foundation for mental health awareness.

“They’re not taught the word ‘depression.’ It’s a clinical term, but they’re taught, ‘I’m sad, I’m disappointed, I’m unhappy.’ The English language has hundreds of thousands of words, and they have to know the nuances,” Kutcher said.

By Grades 4 to 7, social learning and skills to build resiliency are weaved in. Kids need to learn how to forge lasting relationships and interact in various scenarios. They learn that stress is inevitable, but there are ways to manage it, problem solve and grow from a challenge.

Around Grade 8 and into high school, mental health literacy is introduced. Adolescents and teens are taught how to identify mental disorders and their treatments, how to look after their mental health and where to get help. At this point, teens need to learn the disparity between diagnosed depression and a bad day, or being nervous before a test and chronic anxiety. There’s emphasis on the importance of shedding the stigma of mental illness, too.

Kutcher is convinced this is the appropriate age to introduce this learning.

“They’re old enough to understand nuances and core components of mental health concerns. Between the ages of 12 and 25, most mental health disorders [surface] and can be diagnosed … understanding the differences between normal negative emotions and these disorders is essential,” Kutcher said.

Building a positive environment

Back in New Brunswick, Dr. Peterson carved out tools to help schools build a positive environment. She was tapped by the Pan-Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health to take a different approach. The consortium is a partnership of 25 health and education ministries across the country.

At school, kids need a haven to feel safe and to foster their strengths while working on their weaknesses, she said. This is the crux of building good mental health and catching kids who are troubled from falling through the cracks.

Peterson puts this big responsibility on the shoulders of school staff — teachers, guidance counsellors, school bus drivers, cafeteria staff and custodians. Her tools point to a handful of ways to create a positive environment:

  • Teachers and staff know kids’ names and greet them by their names. This shows students that those supervising them are taking them into personal account.
  • Students aren’t separated from their peers. If a child needs additional help with a subject, support is brought into the mainstream classroom instead of pulling the student away.
  • Teachers shouldn’t define kids based on their weaknesses. Too often, students are labelled with having trouble with a subject, for example. This lowers self-esteem at a critical time of confidence building.
  • Teachers are vigilant with “intentional noticing” of the classroom dynamics. That way, they’re stepping in before bullying gets out of control.
  • If a child is identified as at-risk, additional support is roped in. Academic help, assigning a mentor or peer mentor or involving parents are some of the initial steps. Schools need to lean on community-based programs, too.

Peterson’s tool kit is also evidence-based — it was piloted in British Columbia where it still gets a “fair amount of play.” It’s used across the country and with revisions in the works, consultations are taking place from coast to coast.


But teachers bear the burden:

“Teachers have to be intentional with the way they interact with students. They might have natural ways to teach but that doesn’t mean it suits students’ learning styles,” she said.

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Getting youth on the right track

On some school days, a student De Souza looks after could be having a bad day. The teen could be crying, frantic, thrown off by a stressful morning. He or she could be trying to break bad coping habits by relying on drugs or alcohol.

The students starts their day by meeting with treatment staff, like De Souza. The social worker works with her student — they practice their “grounding” strategies, remind themselves that people care about their well-being, and that experts like De Souza understand.

“He [or she] could have a diagnosis of anxiety and trauma and comes in really still thinking and ruminating. He [or she] needs an opportunity to talk about that and go over coping skills,” she said.

Ultimately, students can spend up to two semesters in the REACH program. After that, the hope is they continue their high school careers outside of the centre.

“By the end they come to appointments and programs, they learn how to cope with their symptoms, they ask for help now and they can express their needs,” De Souza said.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868  all offer ways for getting help if you, or someone you know, is suffering from mental health issues.

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